CORONA AND WHAT THEN?
Updated: Apr 10
Berlin Bulletin No. 175 March 31 2020 - Victor Grossman
Berlin, like many of your hometowns, is a ghost city. Except for those offering groceries, medicines or medical care, everything is shut tight. Luckily, no-one here has to stay inside, we can stroll around outside but, aside from families, we may not “assemble” in groups of more than two (if any cops are around).
On my strolls I watch the trolleys (trams, streetcars) trundle by on their regular routes – almost empty, through almost empty streets. But I also see - glory be! – spring moving ahead. How grateful I am that I can enjoy yet another one, with forsythia in full blossom, masses of wonderful daffodils on Karl-Marx-Allee where I live, and budding leaves on most of the trees. And soon lilacs, chestnut blossoms and the perfume of linden trees.
That progress, at least for a good while, seems guaranteed. Otherwise, in respect to party politics, things are very sleepy. I must recall the Grimms’ fairy tale about Sleeping Beauty, when even the dogs, cats and flies fell into a hundred-year slumber, isolated by a giant thorn bush wall.
Not troubling that sleep (since it is now just a brief little nightmare), is the recent disgrace of the Christian Democrats, the biggest party (CDU). But that was way back in February! After their horrific cooperation with the fascist Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the Thuringian election, together with their little rightwing buddy, the Free Democratic Party, they had slumped badly. But, faced by swift mass protests, that damage was repaired, the Left leader was re-elected (at least for a year) and all now seems forgiven and forgotten. The “rally round the flag” spirit caused by the coronavirus emergency, almost recalling wartime nationalism, has propelled CDU polling figures back uphill, with newly-revived sympathy for “Mutti (i.e. Mama) Merkel”, who is now herself in temporary quarantine (just to play safe, for Germany still needs her!).
The other parties wobble but remain more or less stable. Except for the AfD, that is, down from 14-15 % to about 10-11% in recent polls. The welcome drop is not so much to punish its slimy tactics in Thuringia. It is rather because, like Trump, it denied the pandemic which so greatly worries, or frightens, nearly everyone else. Again, like Trump, the AfD has been trying to repair damaged bridges in this respect and join the others.
The drop is probably because the AfD has been hit by a court ruling that its inner fraction, called “Flügel” (“Wing”), was far, far too overtly and illegally pushing for a fascist take-over; the court ordered that Flügel be disbanded. Thus, the AfD was compelled to pluck some strong feathers and the exposé frightened some voters away. It now seems, however, that its seemingly severed “Wing” may now well be powering and piloting the whole nasty pterodactyl.
Otherwise, the sense of general political unity, or dormancy, is based on the measures to relieve the effects of the virus emergency. Most workers are forced to stay at home, so most factories are standing still. A six-digit number of small and medium enterprises, from candy shops and hairdressers to florists, theaters, concert musicians, tourist agencies, even subway beggars are faced by a total loss of income, hitting proprietors who cannot pay shop rent and hitting employees who cannot pay their apartment rent.
In Berlin, 30% will face bankruptcy very soon; most of the others can’t last much longer either. Both the federal and city-state governments were forced to move, and they did, granting almost every trouble group and many individuals direct financial assistance, a postponement on paying rent, and subsidies so companies can pay idled employees over half their wages and salaries.
As usual, the “big boys” will get the biggest benefits, while those at the bottom will be stuck with far less (and jobless, homeless immigrants perhaps with little or nothing). But the worst horrors have been prevented, and while several packages faced some criticism – for being inadequate and unfairly balanced - there was no real opposition. Party strife was dropped – or at least postponed.
The stay-at-home ruling, closing not just factories and shops but kindergartens, schools and colleges, sports facilities and Berlin’s very popular dance clubs, has been extended to April 20th, and beyond that if considered necessary. The benefits extend only into the late spring. But how long will the emergency last? How long before the number of new infections finally decreases and zeros out – or, instead, will it possibly jump to the frightening levels in Spain, Italy and Iran?
The percentage of fatalities thus far has averaged lower in Germany, whose health facilities are often praised. Germany's almost completely insured coverage sharply differs from that in the USA. But in the past three decades there was no further need to keep from falling too far behind the less modern, less well-stocked but broader, centrally-planned medical coverage and geographic spread in former East Germany.
There has also been more and more privatization in Germany. When profit-making and swollen incomes at the top become major factors, the facilities at lower levels usually suffer. And so this has meant more exhausting overtime for doctors and nurses, cuts in the number of available hospital beds, and more patients for each underpaid hospital employee.
Old folks' homes suffered worst. The hungry hunt for staff willing to accept such conditions was well underway in poorer countries and continents when the pandemic hit. Up to now most hospitals have managed. But if things quickly get worse?
Will lessons be learnt from these problems, and from the difficulties in producing enough masks and ventilators, that have resulted in desperate pleas to China? And how will the economy recuperate from the huge, growing debts, private and public, and with the recession predicted by many experts?
Will the entire remaining scene of retail shops, small restaurants and entertainment groups ever revive? Or will the giants grab an even fatter slice of a thinner pie, reducing city centers here and in every country to even more monotonous replicas of the dominant Gap and Adidas, burger, fried chicken and sugared doughnut street scenes - whether in Tacoma, Trenton or Tallahassee? And will that hungry Behemoth Amazon, with its semi-slave work force and giant tentacled home delivery system, seize an even fatter share of the world’s retail trade, strangling all in its way?
I can espy no handsome Prince Charming waiting to end the long political sleep with a kiss for an awakening beauty. I fear instead a lustful band of greedy desperados, opening a wider way not to a happy fairy-tale wedding but rather to economic austerity. Especially for the hardest-hit countries like Spain and Italy but for many, many Germans as well. Even now, the strong nations led by Berlin are forgetting the former “all-European solidarity” bromides. With big money involved, it’s “every man for himself”.
For ordinary people, it’s not easy to keep youngsters happy at home, week in and out, with no school, no meeting friends, and often no playgrounds. That can make adults nervous and maybe angry, especially when they see omens – or examples - of big fish devouring little fish. Will they still have a job after coronavirus? And, job or no job, can they catch up with the postponed rent payments? Hardly anyone here has heard about the threatened rent strike in Chicago, but such ideas could even start infecting people here despite all social distancing.
When the worst is over medically, will the LINKE continue to defend Berlin’s five-year rent ceiling law and reactivate its support for confiscating housing owned by giant real estate corporations? Might a goodly number of those now hit hard by an increasingly discredited “free market” system based on profits ahead of people risk brave new thoughts about changing, yes, replacing it? Will some, despite all attempts by the mass media - even get wind of how well-planned and very generous poor little Cuba was in helping others deal with the pandemic, in Italy, Spain and many other countries?
Even whispers in such directions rarely go undetected and make some people worrisome, and even fearsome if whispers start turning into actions. Plans on checking such developments are often quicker than those against corona. Some are now urging the app methods of “tracking” people with suspected coronavirus wherever they go and checking on whom they meet. But of course, always only with their permission. Of course! But isn’t it possible that after the pandemic tapers away such shadowing, quite as reliably, could be used to track people infected with worrisome left-wing bacilli? I’m just wondering.
No-one can predict how long social distancing will be required or when the sleepy “go it together” status quo will get shaken up, and hardly by any romantic kisses. Perhaps the best defense against desperado types shoving Prince Charmings aside will be to take the offensive and joining to prevent repetitions of this disaster. We could then perhaps move a few vigorous steps closer to what the Grimms loved to end fairy-tales with - that “happily ever after”.
My afternote: I had hardly written those happy words about springtime yesterday when it began to snow, the very first snow all winter in Berlin. Was that an omen? Or is a better omen the sunny weather we enjoyed today?
As usual, I plug here my book “A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee”, discussing the above problems and many others, historical, personal, humorous and futuristic. If you’ve read and liked it, pass on the good word go others. If you disliked it or disagreed with it, write me!). That also holds true or these Berlin Bulletins!